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Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History

Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Musical Meaning
    Book Description:

    Lawrence Kramer has been a pivotal figure in the development of the controversial new musicology, integrating the study of music with social and cultural issues. This accessible and eloquently written book continues and deepens the trajectory of Kramer's thinking as it boldly argues that humanistic, not just technical, meaning is a basic force in music history and an indispensable factor in how, where, and when music is heard. Kramer draws on a broad range of music and theory to show that the problem of musical meaning is not just an intellectual puzzle, but a musical phenomenon in its own right. How have romantic narratives involving Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata affected how we hear this famous piece, and what do they reveal about its music? How does John Coltrane's African American identity affect the way we hear him perform a relatively "white" pop standard like "My Favorite Things"? Why does music requiring great virtuosity have different cultural meanings than music that is not particularly virtuosic? Focusing on the classical repertoire from Beethoven to Shostakovich and also discussing jazz, popular music, and film and television music,Musical Meaninguncovers the historical importance of asking about meaning in the lived experience of musical works, styles, and performances. Kramer's writing, clear and full of memorable formulations, demonstrates that thinking about music can become a vital means of thinking about general questions of meaning, subjectivity, and value. In addition to providing theoretical advances and insights on particular pieces and repertoires,Musical Meaningwill be provocative reading for those interested in issues of identity, gender, and cultural theory. This book includes a CD of Kramer's own composition,Revenants: 32 Variations in C Minor,which he discusses in his final chapter.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92832-9
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction: Sounding Out: Musical Meaning and Modern Experience
    (pp. 1-10)

    The problem of meaning stands at the forefront of recent thinking about music. Whether music has meaning, what kinds of meaning it may have, and for whom; the relationship of musical meaning to individual subjectivity, social life, and cultural context—these questions have inspired strong feelings and sharp debate. All of them are raised anew and given a thorough shaking inMusical Meaning, which aims to rethink as fully as possible both how the questions are asked and how they are answered. The book celebrates meaning as a basic force in music history and an indispensable factor in how, where,...

  6. 1 Hermeneutics and Musical History: A Primer without Rules, an Exercise with Schubert
    (pp. 11-28)

    Hermeneutics, defined as both the theory of interpretation and ″the art of understanding,″ began as a relatively obscure branch of German philosophy in the early nineteenth century and gradually gained more prominence in connection with twentieth-century literary criticism. As conceived by its founder, Friedrich Schleiermacher, it was strictly a text-based discipline; to music it was simply oblivious. Nonetheless, it did have a contemporary parallel in the critical reception of music, a de facto hermeneutic that treated certain musical works, in the first instance works by Beethoven, as if they had the status of texts, even though it was also generally...

  7. 2 Hands On, Lights Off: The ″Moonlight″ Sonata and the Birth of Sex at the Piano
    (pp. 29-50)

    In 1798 Beethoven published a piano sonata that quickly rose to the top of the classical charts and would stay there in perpetuity. Three years later he did the same thing again with even greater success. The sonatas were the ones known respectively as the ″Pathetique″ and the ″Moonlight.″ The two works share both certain types of music and a certain fate. At first, both were esteemed primarily for their relentlessly passionate fast movements; eventually, their lyrical, introspective slow movements came to the fore, giving both sonatas flourishing second careers as romantic mood music. The ″Pathetique″ was a late bloomer...

  8. 3 Beyond Words and Music: An Essay on Songfulness
    (pp. 51-67)

    In George Eliot′s last novel,Daniel Deronda(1876), the hero prevents a young woman from drowning herself in the Thames. The next day, telling her story to the mother of a family with whom he has placed her, this woman, Mirah, a Jewish runaway who embodies the condition of diasporic wandering, recalls her own mother. Her recollection centers on hearing her mother sing. The musical memory grounds her sense of self by symbolically both condensing and perpetuating her entire experience of maternal love:

    I think my life began with waking up and loving my mother′s face: it was so near...

  9. 4 Franz Liszt and the Virtuoso Public Sphere: Sight and Sound in the Rise of Mass Entertainment
    (pp. 68-99)

    From classical times through the eighteenth century, the power of Western music to move its listeners was generally personified by a singer. The archetype was most often Orpheus, coincidentally so for both the creators of Florentine opera and for Shakespeare, whose mythographic account is exemplary:

    The poet

    Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods,

    Since nought so stockish, hard and full of rage

    But music for the time doth change his nature.

    (The Merchant of Venice, V.i.79–82)

    Charismatic singers of both sexes have kept the figure alive to the present day in both opera and popular song,...

  10. 5 Rethinking Schumann′s Carnaval: Identity, Meaning, and the Social Order
    (pp. 100-132)

    This chapter is a rewritten (not merely revised) version of an essay that first appeared in 1993 in the pioneering feminist collectionMusicology and Difference, edited by Ruth Solie, a volume with its own sort of carnivalesque exuberance in which I was glad to share. My argument there was that inCarnavalSchumann drew on the traditions of European festive practice to stretch and exceed the conventional bounds of gender as his age understood them. I would still say so, but in the years since, I′ve come to think that the subject needs and deserves a more fully historicized treatment,...

  11. 6 Glottis Envy: The Marx Brothers′ A Night at the Opera
    (pp. 133-144)

    Cav-Pag. Near the end ofThe Godfather, Part 3(1990), the critically unsuccessful final movie in Francis Ford Coppola′s Mafia trilogy, a performance of Mascagni′sCavallieria Rusticanais intercut with lurid scenes of gangland murder. The sequence is an homage to the famous climax of the firstGodfather(1972), which intercuts its similar violence with a christening ceremony. Part of the problem with the later version is that the gangland plot is already quite ″operatic″ enough; there is no real contrast, certainly nothing as potent as the first movie′s florid juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. Another problem is...

  12. 7 Hercules′ Hautboys: Mixed Media and Musical Meaning
    (pp. 145-172)

    This chapter and the next form a couple. The aim of this one is to ask what can be learned about musical meaning from the phenomenon of mixed media; the aim of the next is to ask, conversely, what can be learned about mixed media from the phenomenon of musical meaning. Like the questions, the answers represent two sides of the same coin. This chapter will suggest that mixed media specifies both the general form and the historical basis of musical meaning, and with them the means for music to enter the culture-wide stream of communicative actions and exchanges. The...

  13. 8 The Voice of Persephone: Musical Meaning and Mixed Media
    (pp. 173-193)

    If the last chapter is right, musical meaning finds both its source and its structure in the phenomenon of mixed media. The source and the structure are coextensive. Insofar as the structure involves an interplay of meaning and nonmeaning, semantic ascription and nonsemantic remainder, the a priori semantic ambiguity of Western music can be said to be produced historically by the use of music to supplement and suffuse texts and images. The ″a priori″ is installed retrospectively by its contingent, concrete, dynamic realizations. That′s why an understanding of how music works in the context of mixed media can supply a...

  14. 9 Powers of Blackness: Jazz and the Blues in Modern Concert Music
    (pp. 194-215)

    One of the great emblematic moments in the history of movies occurs early in the first ″talking picture,″The Jazz Singer(1927), when the star, Al Jolson, steps out of character after doing a musical number and speaks a few lines he had made famous on the vaudeville stage: ″Wait a minute—wait a minute—you ain′t heard nothing yet.″ As Michael Rogin observes, ″These first words of feature movie speech, a kind of performative, announce—you ain′t heard nothing yet—the birth of sound movies and the death of silent film.″¹ But the film is also emblematic in another...

  15. 10 Long Ride in a Slow Machine: The Alienation Effect from Weill to Shostakovich
    (pp. 216-241)

    Recently I saw an advertisement for a compact disc entitledElla Fitzgerald: Complete Ella in Berlin—″Mack the Knife.″ The ad promised that the listener would be drawn into the ″palpable″ excitement of the live concert audience, especially in the ″rollicking title track.″ Fitzgerald keeps this promise brilliantly, especially when she forgets the words after the third chorus and begins to improvise, explicitly ″signifying″ on earlier recordings by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin and conflating the figure of Mack the Knife with that of the singers who tell his story. It might be supposed that if Bertolt Brecht could have...

  16. 11 Chiaroscuro: Coltrane′s American Songbook
    (pp. 242-257)

    ″Eddy is white,″ writes Toni Morrison of a Hemingway character, ″and we know he is because nobody says so.″¹ The same can be said for Mack the Knife, by whom I do not mean Brecht and Weill′s Macheath (of whom ″The Cannon Song″ does say so), but the protagonist of the American hit song based on Marc Blitzstein′s loose adaptation of ″Moritat von Mackie Messer.″ As noted in the last chapter, Blitzstein′s text turns the ambiguous Macheath into a period-specific romantic outlaw, a Brandoesque tough cookie with great sexual magnetism. This Mack the Knife is white, and we know he...

  17. 12 Ghost Stories: Cultural Memory, Mourning, and the Myth of Originality
    (pp. 258-288)

    The Mirror Stage. There is a strange place found in some clothing stores, a kind of dormer constructed of three full-length mirrors. A central mirror stands opposite the customer and two flanking mirrors spread out at equal angles like wings. When you pass before this compound mirror to try something on, the multiplication of your image is both magical and disturbing. The wings fling you into a vertiginous opening where there are just too many of you, and at the same time enfold you in a womblike tent where there are just enough of you, where even the walls are...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 289-326)
  19. Index
    (pp. 327-335)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 336-336)